Ben Weiner is a freelance consultant in information design and software development, and a letterpress printer.
The Blackburn Museum, home to a large collection of materials from industrialist R.E. Hart, participated in the ‘Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial Northwest’ exhibition at Two Temple Place (2015)–an exhibition co-curated by the Institute’s Dr Cynthia Johnston.
The older the machine the better, and although dated 1875 this one supplied by Figgins Foundry of Ray Street, Farringdon, in London adheres quite strictly to the orginal c.1813 pattern. The design was by George Clymer, the American engineer who in his sixties travelled to England to find a market for his latest invention, a printing machine of iron with an impression-enhancing compound lever. He named it the ‘Columbian’, decorated it with an eagle, and competed quite successfully with home-grown designs that emerged around the same date, notably the equally overtly patriotic Albion with its knuckle-action impression. Along with the eagle, Columbian presses are ornamented with decorative studs, garlands, and a rather fanciful impression of a snake. On grounds of size, and as they are usually painted black with bright metal pins and a polished brass maker’s plate, these embellishments might be considered superfluous. The machines have considerable presence.
Printing presses have always been made to suit the dimensions of the largest sheet of paper they are intended to print. This particular machine came in towards the top of the scale for Columbians, capable of taking a sheet about two feet by three. Its cast iron construction meant it weighed perhaps a ton or so. Such machines do not have a lot of parts, and so of the total there are several which are particularly large and inconveniently heavy.
The frame that contains the type bed and the platen which presses the paper down onto it is known as the staple and in the case of this press it takes the form of an asymmetric U shape with short pegs sticking out at the bottom in which the legs and feet with their decorative acanthus leaves and paws are located. For at least ten years the staple had been peacefully resting in the archives of the Blackburn Museum, warm and safe beneath the heating pipes running overhead. It stood vertically but resting on the long side of the U, because that is how it had been carried down from its former home in the gallery upstairs.
Richard Lawrence and I jumped at the chance to move and reassemble the machine so that it could go back on display. Firstly, because moving such an object is an interesting challenge. Secondly, because the best way to learn about how such machines operate is to work on them, and thirdly because if we found it to be functionally complete then we knew that the museum planned to make the machine available for use by the public. Richard is a letterpress printer and he and I are both former graduates of the Department of Typography at the University of Reading; we both value ‘traditional’ printing in the digital age for its entirely physical nature. Handling type, paper and ink is pleasurable. The technology presents expressive opportunities of its own and can be good for the soul. The musuem’s press had previously belonged to the local art college where students would have used it to print woodcuts and linocuts; these forms of illustration express in the printed result the physical qualities of the materials used, as well as offering artists a straightforward means of producing editions rather than single works.
We’ve had the pleasure of moving several similar machines in the past. It’s an unusual hobby but perhaps surprisingly fulfilling. Usually the job has some little twists to spice it up: perhaps the press is entirely covered in junk; perhaps pieces are missing; perhaps it’s in a basement or upstairs or around an unfeasibly tight corner. Sometimes presses are put in place before the walls around them. In this case we were in luck. Nobody knew whether all the parts of the press were there, so we had a little puzzle to look forward to, but the archive has a lift capable of taking the weight of the staple and as a bonus it also has a selection of moving and lifting equipment. By using the lever and the wheel, two not particularly strong people can move some rather heavy and awkward things. As a final challenge we had only the time from arrival in Blackburn on Monday 9 November until the museum closed on Tuesday 10.
The press now stands in the main gallery. Happily, it is complete. By the close of play on Monday, we’d cleaned the superficial rust off the bright parts. A curious makeshift assembly of pallet truck, lifting truck and the staple had worked its way up in the lift. On Tuesday morning we used wood blocks and an engine hoist to rotate the staple upright and put the feet back on. Then it remained to place all the other parts: rails, bed, platen and piston; bar and compound impression levers; and finally that decorative eagle which as its practical function acts as a counterweight to raise the platen.
It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, made better by the fact that, due to the design and the materials used, it is still after 140 years in perfect working order. Our only contributions to this were to bring the parts back together in the correct orientation and to add elbow grease and oil. Such presses repay considerate use with great pleasure in operation and they can produce printed items of the finest quality. It is easy to be fooled by the appearance into thinking machinery like this is crude. Just like anything largely handmade and hand-operated, it has precision where precision is needed. We hope very much that people in Blackburn will be able to use the press to produce artwork or graphics of their own devising and to enjoy the experience of creating graphic work with their own hands.